Kubrick’s Flop ‘Fear and Desire’

Kubrick had a few duds in his career, and this was one of them.

by Kali Tuttle
Fear and Desire

If you didn’t know before you sat down to watch Fear and Desire, you would probably never guess that it was a Stanley Kubrick film. It doesn’t have the same trademarks that some of his later films would have, such as the Kubrick stare or the one-point perspective. It plays out like a weird art film from the 1950s.

Fear and Desire is a disappointment. It’s Kubrick’s first full-length film, so he hadn’t quite found his style yet. There are several different filming techniques and storytelling devices used, but they never seem to quite mesh together the way they should. It’s more of a jumbled mess than anything.

A Character Study with No Characters

Fear and Desire revolves around four soldiers who have fallen behind enemy lines after crashing their plane. Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp) leads the group as the sure-headed one. Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera) is dependable but a hothead. Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit) isn’t remarkable in any way. Finally, Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky) is the youngest and most nervous of the bunch.

Though the short runtime of only 61 minutes may contribute to this, none of these characters are ever fleshed out. We don’t know much about them beyond some general traits and even then the descriptions are vague. Yet, Kubrick wants Fear and Desire to be an observation of different characters and their reactions to their environment.

If this film had been given even another half hour, we could have learned more about them and been more able to understand what Kubrick wanted to say about humanity in general. Instead, we watch four hollow men behind enemy lines with no way to truly comprehend their feelings.

Use of Inner Monologue

A few times in the film, Kubrick uses voiceovers to show what the men are feeling. He chaotically overlaps the voiceovers as we view scenes of the men trudging through the forest; this chaos disorients the audience and it becomes almost too much to bear.

This technique is only used a few times, with most inner thoughts being voiced by the men themselves to one another. It’s Kubrick’s way of showing how the inner turmoil is not reflected by the outward manifestations of the men. The execution is sloppy though, and it’s easy to get lost trying to understand what the men are feeling.

During these scenes, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red LineThat film feels like a mature version of Fear and Desire. It portrays both the inner and outer thoughts of soldiers caught in a frightening position. However, the soldiers in Malick’s film were more than just flimsy stereotypes of men at war. They felt like actual people, whereas the soldiers in Fear and Desire are words on a page with no emotion behind them.

The Message

Kubrick is clearly trying to show what war is to men and how it changes them. As the film begins, there is a narration that says, “There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being…These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.”

With those words, the film delves into an abstract study of the mind. Yet, this study feels disingenuous throughout. It reminded me of my days in high school creative writing classes. There was always that one kid who was just going way too deep into surface-level themes. They found metaphors everywhere and they analyzed everything to death. Instead of feeling like an earnest dive into humanity and its follies, Fear and Desire, much like that one kid, was just trying way too hard to be deep and mysterious.

One thing I did appreciate about how detached the film felt from reality was how it reflected the madness of war. In a time when your life could be ended at literally any moment, reality probably seems a foreign concept. The real world is far away from where you are and the life you knew is over. Our characters did well to demonstrate this uneasy weightlessness that haunts a soldier.

Trial Run Movie

Naturally, Kubrick later hit his stride with Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and Dr. Strangelove. In a way, Fear and Desire was a test run of what Kubrick could do. It was a realization of the filming techniques and storytelling devices that Kubrick could and would apply to his later films.

Comparing this to Full Metal Jacket (my personal favorite Kubrick film), you wouldn’t think that they were created by the same director. Fear and Desire is detached and uninteresting while Full Metal Jacket is brutally honest with a streak of dark comedy thrown in. It’s the pinnacle of what a good war film looks like. It is leaps and bounds ahead of Fear and Desire in that aspect.

I can’t be too critical of Fear and Desire because it is a fine first film. It’s clear Kubrick was trying to establish his different style. However, it just doesn’t hold a candle to what Kubrick had in store for the world. It’s Kubrick’s testament to never give up.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Fear and Desire? Comment down below!

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to MovieBabble via email to stay up to date on the latest content.

Join MovieBabble on Patreon so that new content will always be possible.

Related Articles

1 comment

Nick Kush May 27, 2023 - 10:17 am

Join the MovieBabble staff: https://moviebabble.com/join-moviebabble/

Like MovieBabble on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/moviebabblereviews/

Follow MovieBabble on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/moviebabble/

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MovieBabble_


Leave a Comment Below!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: